The French influence on Montreal is palpable, but that doesn’t mean it’s monolithic. Montreal is, in fact, a diverse, multiethnic city, and I was surprised to learn that Italian-Canadians, who immigrated during two waves at the end of the 19th Century and after World War II, are considered its largest ethnic group.
The cultural and commercial center of the Italian community is located in Montreal’s Little Italy, or La Petite Italie, as it is more properly known. Located northeast of the city’s center, the district’s main drag is St. Laurent Boulevard, which is lined with Italian groceries, cafes, restaurants, and gelateria. While walking St. Laurent Boulevard, the cultural contrast is striking -- while all of the signage is in French, the red, green, and white colors of the Italian flag are everywhere.
One of the best places to shop is Milano (6882 Saint-Laurent Boulevard, 514.273.8558), a large Italian supermarket which sells a wide selection of imported Italian products -- from olive oils and pastas to rows and rows of canned tomatoes, not to mention a huge selection of passata di pomodori. The store also features a butcher, fresh pasta, and a large cheese selection.
Off on a side street, Quincaillerie Dante (6851 St. Dominique, 514.271.2057), which opened in 1956 as a hardware store, is now a destination for its large selection of cooking supplies. Navigating the narrow aisles, one can peruse a range of moka and espresso coffee makers, pasta machines, cooking appliances, and specialty gadgets. The store is a family business, and the owner told me that when she inherited the store from her father, she turned it into a cookware shop due to her interest in cooking. A corner of the store is given over to her brother, an avid hunter, who sells guns and hunting supplies.
At the heart of the district is the Jean-Talon Market, an immense farmers market featuring a large selection of fruits and vegetables sold at outdoor stalls. Under tents, rows and rows of fresh tomatoes, cauliflower, radishes, and figs compete with succulent peaches and plums for the attention of shoppers. The market is surrounded by even more gustatory possibilities -- specialty purveyors of cheese, bread, and coffee ring the perimeter.
Montrealers have the good fortune of actually being able to taste the produce they are buying since nearly all of the vendors provide freshly cut slices of their offerings on plates in front of their stalls. We were quickly sold on some delicious peaches brought in from Ontario and some slices of juicy Quebec tomatoes sprinkled with salt. If only we had a kitchen in our hotel room, we would have bought a couple of the Quebec tomatoes, basil, and some fresh mozzarella cheese from Milano and made ourselves a homemade insalata caprese.
Click below for a photo essay on Jean-Talon Market, which includes a number of photographs taken by our friend Val Junker, who visited the market just a few weeks after our trip: